11:33 PM PST on Saturday, February 13, 2010

By PAUL LAROCCO and ALICIA ROBINSON
The Press-Enterprise

Nearly 10 years ago, Russ Leach took over an agency still reeling from a shooting that brought widespread calls for reform.

Despite lingering mistrust of Riverside police, community leaders found the new chief personable. Officers found him galvanizing.

“I came in when this department had a horrible reputation,” Leach said. “I’d like to think we improved that over several years, and I left it a better place.”

As he spoke late last week, the 61-year-old was reflective and emotional.

He had just confirmed his resignation after crashing his city-issued car at 3 a.m. Feb. 8. The handling of that incident has led to independent criminal and internal probes. Leach has said he was disoriented on prescription drugs and doesn’t remember what happened.

In the single-car collision, he struck a light pole and fire hydrant, then drove more than 3 miles with a hanging fender and two blown tires. When his Chrysler 300 was spotted by officers, it was rolling on its rims and throwing off sparks.

Riverside police filed a report indicating that Leach had consumed alcohol but provided no field sobriety test.

Officers recommended no criminal action, prompting investigators to review whether their superiors had influenced their decision.

Leach, who was to be paid $241,000 annually into 2013, took a medical retirement. In 2009, he was off work for three months after back surgery.

Some observers said he had become a less effective leader as his health deteriorated and a state requirement for departmental reform expired. For the chief’s supporters, the crash has left a cloud over a positive legacy.

“He may not have had the same energy level of late, but he had the same commitment,” said the Rev. Jerry Louder, a Riverside church pastor and longtime advocate for anti-gang programs. “I don’t want any of this to interfere with what he’s accomplished.”

Into The storm

After five years as police chief in El Paso, Texas, and two years with the anti-drug organization D.A.R.E., Leach arrived in Riverside in September 2000. He also had spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Leach stepped into the storm that developed after the shooting of Tyisha Miller on Dec. 28, 1998. The 19-year-old black woman was shot 12 times as she sat in her car at a Riverside gas station. Officers said they believed she reached for a gun.

The shooting stirred protests and a near-riot that thrust the city into the international media spotlight.

The state attorney general said the department suffered from systemic racism and ordered a series of reforms including use-of-force training and purchasing less-lethal weapons. The binding agreement, called a consent decree, was signed in February 2001.

“The first day I got here,” Leach said at the time, “I’m looking at lawsuits that have been left over, reports about the department, all sort of people walking around with scars from the past.”

The consent decree brought $22 million worth of changes, including patrol car video cameras, heightened officer diversity training and a five-year strategic plan to ensure continued progress. Slowly, trust was built.

“It seemed he was working hard to replace problem officers on the force and build anew,” said Michael Dunn, co-chairman of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability. “He partially succeeded in that, and as long as the stipulation was in place, he had the power.”

When the reform mandate expired in 2006, Dunn said he felt there was a “lack of will” from city leaders to continue progressive efforts.

“He was marginalized and removed from a lot of the decision making,” he said of Leach.

Over the last three years, many of Leach’s most visible actions were enforcement based: teaming with the district attorney for 2007’s civil injunction against the East Side Riva gang and last month’s criminal crackdown on the gang.

He mostly kept quiet about five of his officers who, within 16 months in 2008 and 2009, were charged with crimes from misdemeanor DUI and battery to felony robbery and sexual assault. The chief said they didn’t exemplify the largely hard-working, honest force.

Meanwhile, the city’s Community Police Review Commission, formed to provide an independent look at officer-involved deaths, was altered to conduct its work after — and not parallel to — criminal investigations.

Leach cited concerns that the panel could interfere. A member said last week that she had no hard feelings and hoped the department would seek a replacement who has Leach’s professionalism and knack for community relations.

“It’s another time where we can make the most of this opportunity, or we can squander it and take steps backwards,” said Chani Beeman. “And I hope we don’t do that.”

Fans and Critics

Crime in Riverside has dropped markedly since the late 1990s. Despite the downturn in the economy, Leach reported in December that 2009’s statistics showed a decline in most categories from 2008.

The department is embarking on a five-year strategic plan emphasizing professionalism and a further decentralization of police operations.

At a meeting last month to solicit comments on the new plan, Latino community leaders packed a room at the Magnolia Station expecting to see the chief, who had invited them. They learned that Leach had sent representatives.

“The department has professional people who do the best they can,” said Gilberto Esquivel, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission who attended that session, “but as far as leadership, they didn’t have any.”

Esquivel said he didn’t appreciate Leach’s denials that police were part of last year’s immigration sweeps led by the U.S. Border Patrol near Casa Blanca, when one of his commanders had said otherwise.

But a former police lieutenant who became an Eastside leader disagreed that Leach was out of touch. Alex Tortes said Leach was the department’s most tireless advocate of the community policing model, which values outreach and social programs as much as enforcement.

“The partnership that he developed and the credibility that he brought is going to be very difficult to replace,” Tortes said. “If he told you he was going to do something, he did it.”

Leach’s first assistant chief used the same word — credibility — to describe the chief during his tumultuous early days on the job.

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